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The Unfortunate Progression of Tourism

I grew up in the small town of Truckee, California. As a child, I was oblivious to big picture concepts like economic development and sustainable tourism. I remember frequenting local resorts and paying five dollars for local student ski passes on Sundays. I have fond memories enjoying our region’s most spectacular terrain from the seat of a chairlift.

Through my collegiate studies, I began to notice my hometown’s reliance on tourism. As I returned home to work in the industry during summer and winter breaks, I continued to recognize how important the industry would be as a regional economic driver for years to come. I also observed, somewhat unfortunately, how the increased emphasis on serving the needs of temporary visitors was affecting resident’s attitudes towards tourism.

Sadly, many of the ‘local’ benefits from tourism have been slowly stripped away as the industry has shifted their focus to meeting the needs of part-time visitors and second-home owners. While the economic benefits of catering to these market segments are clear, the needs of the people responsible for delivering a first-rate tourism experience cannot be ignored.

Many full-time Tahoe residents work in the tourism industry and are regularly responsible for interacting with guests. Despite working long hours, many locals are struggling to stay afloat as the region’s cost of living continues to rise. While planners must be compensated for ensuring adequate accommodations for massive influxes of visitors, our region’s largest tourism corporations have the ability to more adequately provide for the needs of the employees that make daily impacts on visitor experiences.

Moments of Truth

In tourism studies, there is a concept known as ‘moments of truth’. Visitors have multiple moments throughout their stay. One example is the visitor’s initial encounter with resort staff upon arriving at the destination. This initial encounter can make or break the visitor’s experience, and many moments throughout their stay will impact whether or not they’ll return to that destination in the future.

In the tourism industry, employees at all organizational levels affect the guest experience. If resorts wish to deliver a top-notch tourism experience, employees at all levels must be have their needs met so that they are excited to show and meet visitor’s needs everyday. Happy hosts lead to satisfied visitors, and satisfied visitors are more likely to become repeat visitors.

Local to Global

North Tahoe’s dependence on tourism has grown rapidly during the past decade. In Truckee, this has led to infrastructure improvements and a boom of tourism offerings. Many locals, however, have grown concerned about the dangers of relying too heavily on tourism as an economic driver, especially if economic gains aren’t being used to improve local quality of life.

According to, per capita income in Truckee was nearly $36,000 in 2013. This is up from about $27,000 in 2000, and although average income has risen, so have median values for houses and condos. The average home in Truckee went for almost $419,000 in 2013, which is an increase from just over $240,000 in 2000.

Median income has increased by nearly 40 percent, but property values have also risen by nearly 75 percent. Median gross rent in 2013 was over $1,400 per month, which equates to about half of the average annual per capita income. Despite the high cost of living these numbers suggest, Truckee’s cost of living index, as of March 2013, was 99.9, just below the U.S average of 100.

Averages, however, don’t tell the full story. When it comes to distributing the economic benefits from tourism, there appears to be a discrepancy between median income for all residents of Truckee and the reported average base salaries of the region’s highest paid public officials and private CEOS.

Published last November in the Tahoe Daily Tribune, this article examined base salaries of top leaders in 21 of the region’s public agencies. According to the analysis, the average base salary for these leaders was three and a half times higher than the average American worker. The comparisons made in the article include information on base salaries only, and while top public officials make 3.7 times more than the average town employee, this pales in contrast to the private industry, where CEOs often make in excess 300 times more than the average private employee.

These officials are undoubtedly adequately compensated for the jobs they do in overseeing massive annual budgets and managing large teams of employees. Tourism, however, has the potential improve quality of life for full-time residents working at every level of every industry. Fortunately, another Tribune article published back in April details greater efforts to gather input from community members in the formulation of a master tourism plan aimed at improving the tourism experience in the region over the next ten years.

This is a very promising sign. Full-time residents must demand a say in the distribution of economic gains from tourism, as well the best ways to spend public funds to improve future tourism offerings. They should also express their opinions on how tourism profits will be used to improve quality of life in the region. This issue hits home, for me, in Tahoe, but local input should be applied to existing, and up-and-coming, tourism destinations throughout the world.

Many developing nations today are utilizing tourism to bolster economic viability. However, when locals don’t possess the educational background necessary for them to play an integral role in the tourism planning, development, and delivery processes, their needs are easily subjugated to those of the investors and stockholders funding the multinational corporations that are responsible for global tourism planning and development.

Healthy economic gains and vast improvements in quality of life are promised often, but the delivery of real, tangible benefits still appears to be lacking on a global scale. In part two of this brief blog series, we will examine an evolution of the tourism life cycle, including a look at the progression of host-visitor attitudes during the course of this cycle.

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